Monday, August 18, 2008

It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)

243. One of Roger Corman's last films as a director, Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1971) is a colossal mess of a movie. It's not an entirely unwatchable mess--indeed, it's never really boring--but it's a hard core weird hippie shit movie, in which the director indulges his European influences (in this case, Godard). It's beautifully shot by cinematographer Ron Dexter (the head of make-up is future great cinematographer Dean Cundey), and it's edited at a brisk pace, but it's all completely random, like it's a bunch of crap that the filmmakers made up as they went out in the desert. I know, I know, most weird hippie shit movies are a bunch of crap they made up out in the desert. I'm sure AIP's approach to these movies was to give the cast and crew some tabs of acid and a Bolex and send them out to make the movie, hoping for something to cobble together in the editing room. Of course, Corman was hardly the type, even if he IS responsible for several key weird hippie shit movies. This one posits a world where a deadly gas wipes out everyone over the age of 25, and follows a hippie couple through the absurdist wasteland afterwards. It's all hopelessly dated, but so what? The notion that the jocks at your high school are only a step or two away from becoming the fascists of tomorrow still has an eerie resonance today. But this isn't a film that should be taken seriously.

244. Alec Guinness does his then-patented meek nebbish bit in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, directed by Charles Crichton), in which he has the perfect bank heist on his mind. He's in charge of bullion shipments, but he can't touch the stuff until he finds a way to ship it out of the country. Enter Stanley Holloway, whose character makes lead Eiffel Tower souvenirs. A bargain is struck, and the heist goes off. As is usual in heist movies, it's not the heist itself that goes afoul, it's the aftermath, but as this is one of those charmingly droll Ealing comedies, it sends its characters to relatively gentle dooms. Meanwhile, there's a fleeting glimpse of a VERY young Audrey Hepburn, and great fun is had by all.

245. When I wasn't puzzling over the great, gaping holes in the narrative, all I could think of while I was watching Mongol (2007, directed by Sergei Bodrov) was that exchange from Conan the Barbarian:

Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?
Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.
Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

This movie, generally, has more or less the same plot. It also has the same appetite for spectacle. Many many people are stabbed in this movie. I mean: stabbity stab stab stab. But beyond that, it's hard to really figure this movie, because those gaps in the narrative would seem to included seriously important stuff. Temudgin--the future Genghis Khan--escapes from the Tangut Empire and then suddenly rides at the front of a huge army? How? The movie doesn't say. Oh, I enjoyed the hell out of this sucker. It keeps one's attention, after all, with brutal violence and a ton of ethnographic detail in the background, but it sheds more heat than light. Still, it's the first part of a trilogy, so perhaps the next segment will focus more on the nuts and bolts of empire.

246. I think the key to Humphrey Bogart's enduring appeal is that he was willing to take chances that other stars of his day would never have considered. It's understandable, I suppose, given that Bogart's early career was spent playing thoroughly loathsome characters, that he would have no compunctions about playing a frankly unlikeable character like Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, directed by John Huston). I mean, even when Cary Grant played a heel (in His Girl Friday, for example), you still couldn't help but like him. Bogart, though, he didn't care if he punctured his image, and as a result, he added to it considerably. Dobbs, paranoid with gold fever, reminds me a lot of Bogart's later portrayal of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, in so far as both of them start out as "Bogart" and gradually transform into something else. This film has great, rough-hewn characters in it. Walter Huston gets most of the glory (and the Oscar), but pretty boy Tim Holt manages to hold his own, while the parade of bit players is fascinatingly diverse. "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges."

247. It was an effort of will today not to log in and change my user name to "Vulnavia Phibes." I don't really know why that name appeals to me, but it does. I like it out of all proportion to my affection for The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971, directed by Robert Fuest) from which it is drawn, but love's love, I guess. I mean, I like the movie, don't get me wrong, but I don't love it, really. It's an attractive film, if a bit over-lit. The art-deco designs of the film hearken back to the great horror movies of the 1930s, and they bespeak a production sensibility that's more lavish than what AIP normally paid for. But there's something lacking in it. The themed deaths are clever and occasionally ghastly, but they aren't really all that suspenseful, and no one in the movie is very likable. On this last point: I don't need someone to root for--some of my favorite movies are about bad people doing bad things--but I do need to view the characters on film as something other than mannequins. In a lot of ways, this movie reminds me a lot of an Avengers episode in which the naughty by-play of Steed and Mrs. Peel is completely absent. Alas.

(as a further aside, regarding "identification," I've always loved what writer Caitlin Kiernan had to say about readers who needed "someone to root for." "Pigs root, dear," she says. "Are you a pig?").

1 comment:

Zelda Rose said...

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of those movies that I like watching, but feel no need to go out of my way to see.